Chapter 131 - Expectation
A group of people can be seen marching on the road between Tower City and Luzden. This group contains three carriages pulled by proud and well-bred beasts, a dozen well-armed men in steel plate riding on slightly inferior beasts and a couple dozen people on foot. The walking people are divided in two, one half is wearing light armour, while the others are wearing leather at most or clad in servants livery or simple clothing. A few shackled beastkin follow behind, empty eyes staring at the dusty road as they slog on.
Two carriages bear the sigil of their respective mage islands. The frontmost vehicle is covered in an intricate and detailed motif of greenery and plants, green highlights surrounded by darker lines inside glossy black. The last carriage in the procession is all stark grey lines, the only roundness apparent the curves of cogs and springs.
The middle carriage looks almost drab in comparison, dark wood with golden detailing.
A smaller group of mounted people can be seen trailing behind the procession, slowly catching up.
“Teach, it’s probably obvious, but I’ll go over it anyway. The front one is a nature mage. The middle one houses the noble. It seems like a friend of house Luzden. The last one is a metal mage of lower rank. We should be wary of that one. Mana cannons can pack a punch.”
“Geez, Selis. Infiltrating a suspicious group like this seemed like fun until you decided to bury us in rules.” I reply, suppressing the slight irritation I am feeling.
“Tess, keep your position. We can claim to be from Peak City, but I’m afraid that staying long will shine too much light on all of your ignorance on the intricacies of etiquette.” Selis is wringing her hands as she looks around, double checking everything.
“Chill, what’s the worst that could happen?” My carefree reply only seems to irritate Selis. Good. Shared discomfort is halved discomfort.
“Why do humans need such… rules? Is that truly needed for your societies to function?” Rhea is looking at Selis with narrowed eyes.
“STOP IN THE NAME OF LORD LUZDEN! WHO GOES THERE?!” shouts one of the riders from ahead of us. We must have sped up while chatting, and I somehow missed the fact that all three carriages are now halted in the middle of the road.
The loud guy’s hat is very ornate and has a large plume. This... captain? Is that the correct term here? He must have seen us coming and called everyone to a halt.
“What is he compensating for?”
“Shhhh. Haha, be silent now.”
“That’s a massive hat, must be compensating a lot.”
“That’s an even bigger spear. He must like holding long ro-”
“OW, okay, I’ll be silent already.”
Where does Selis keep pulling these things from? Nobody in the halted group flinches as Selis smacks Angeta on the ass with a riding crop.
“Greetings.” Ket has adopted a smarmy voice as he half slurs a greeting. He then looks away disinterested. Pretty good acting there, perfect for the uncaring and spoiled noble scion. Tess is haltingly guiding her mount closer to him, a fake smile on her face.
“Which house do you hail from, milord?”
Ket glances at him but looks away with a sneer. Damn, he has got this role down pat! Selis sees this as her cue and approaches while bowing. “We hail from past Peak City, one of the outer towns. Our regent has sent us to acquire some workforce.”
The guard captain nods at this. “Same as us, we are returning to Luzden before heading on. I see no flag, that is for what reason?”
I can hear Angeta grinding her teeth as the topic of acquiring work folk is discussed. She is doing a great job of holding back.
Selis smiles wryly as she answers. “We heard of slave folk scouts, and didn’t want to warn the savages we were coming towards them.”
The captain frowns. “Scouts? None has been spotted by our forces. They normally don’t dare venture outside their front lines during this season.”
“Cease this useless babble. I'm weary and want a ride.” Ket’s annoyed frown makes the captain bow low. He immediately looks horrified to have caused insult to a noble. The ruling fellows have their commoners well trained here, even better than I thought...
“My apologies, milord.” He signals some servants and Ket is quickly escorted inside the carriage, hauling Tess along with him. The door slams shut as my party studies theirs in a half awkward stalemate.
“Soo, do you guys come here oft-”
“ONWARDS!” My attempt at casual conversation is cut short by a loud yell. The footsoldiers stop staring at me or leering at Rhea and start marching again. Waving away the dust kicked up by many stomping feet, I steer my bear into motion again.
I see Selis attempting to talk to the people on foot, but she gets ignored by everyone. Why, again, did I think this was a good idea? Let's hope that Ket has a better time than the rest of us. All we are doing is travelling slower while eating a lot of dust.
I sigh a bit. My back feels cold. Rhea took Selis’ command not to show affection to heart. Looking at the far away mountains, I decide to check on how my scanning drones are doing. I’d love to mentally crawl into my shell, but falling from my mount is a possibility then. I form a mental process to keep my body upright and move my eyeballs around a bit and give it control of my muscles.
I move my attention inwards, bringing my connection to Database to the forefront. I check on how it is doing. The amount of stuff my large group of students has been doing is growing as they are starting to show some initiative. This is helped by Database’s support, it sends out quests, keeps track of rewards and keeps the manufacturing plant under Tree running to produce simple materials and rewards. Its slow gathering of qi - every single speck of power coming near the moon is greedily absorbed - is keeping up with its increased workload so far.
Reassured that my sect is developing nicely, I tap into the connections Tree has with the drones. Each of those flying autonomous vehicles has a front mounted swivel camera. A bit more refined than the initial version I created for scouting, the camera’s resolution is a bit less than a megapixel.
This is in no way detailed enough for the high elevation spying work I designed them for, but that’s why they're equipped with a variable zooming lens. The cameras can swivel a hundred and eighty degrees up and a swivelled mirror allows the view to swing from side to side. Basking in my own engineering genius is fun and all but let's see how they have been doing so far now.
I programmed them to perform a simple spiral scanning pattern when I launched them, but Database has been using its newly assigned privileges to assign a few on overwatch duty. Half of them are still spiralling outwards, mapping new terrain in high detail. One of them is in a holding pattern above my location. The rest are keeping track of strategically important places, like Tower City or the Capital.
Or the massive beast horde that is rushing my location from the west…
I order Database to keep track of the major mutant clusters using any available calculation capacity. My qi clone then informs me that another drone is ready for launch. I look through my eyes for a moment and see the same grassy fields and disinterested people as previous. I could cover the entire drone in a stealth field, I guess.
Meh, I’ll launch it later. The large mass of widely varied and diverse fauna hauling ass towards our location is a higher priority. What to do about it, though?
I surreptitiously breathe out some qi, sending it in the direction the horde is coming from. A couple of dozen kilometres to the west I sense a large group of shapes moving in our direction. Not only is the group large, but some of the more mutated beasts are also the largest I have come across yet. I breathe out more qi, exerting some of my cultivation base by scanning the area around us. It feeds me an odd picture.
Why is there not a single animal around other than that group, and why are they coming this way when there are plenty of other targets? Most of the small hunting and gathering villages are abandoned and empty, but some merchants and mage escorted noble convoys are travelling on the roads. I scanned at least four of them to the south, each of them closer to the animals than we are.
A chill runs up my back. There seems to be a malicious feeling in the air, just outside my reach.
Inside the middle carriage, Tess is having loads of fun. Seated across from their host, a young man with a noble air and soft aura who introduced himself as Fedin from house Luzden, Tess has seated herself very close to Ket. Initially quite angry at the fact that Selis threw her under the wagon like this, or inside the wagon as it turned out, she is now having the time of her life.
Growing up as a sneak in the streets and dungeon halls of Tower City, she tried to understate the fact that she was a female as much as possible. The dark underbelly of that city had few secrets for the girl whose job it was to move undetected and the “birds and the bees” were known to her from a young age.
“Their disruptive elements have been terrible for our stores, though. Has Peak had any of these unlawful actions?” Tess pays little attention to the conversation between their noble host and Ket.
Although understanding the mechanics of courtship and sex, the reason why some men and women decided to wear revealing clothing eluded her. The dungeon is a place of physical violence, supported by the social machinations of the delvers performing said violence. Lives could be ended by a stray claw, spell, or blade, so why would people expose themselves like that?
Tess had been witness to many betrayals and robberies, but one aspect eluded her observant mind. She never really understood why some people - mostly young men - allowed themselves to be tricked by people -mostly women - who were obviously up to no good. A single glance at the exposed and unprotected neckline or bust of a female delver was enough for Tess to understand that romantic distraction and betrayal would be on the menu.
But now that she is the female party and Ket is the male party, a whole new world is opening up for her. Ket’s face is hard to read in the best of times, but Tess has gained quite some understanding in reading his normally placid facade. The slight twitch of his eye, whenever she brushes her chest against his arm, is similar to a screaming hissyfit from any other person.
“Terrible, this fighting in the streets. Must be some upstart common delvers getting too full of themselves,” Ket replies while chewing on some dried fruits.
Ket is sitting opposite the noble scion of this and that house, both boys sporting obviously fake aloof and bored expressions. The chatter between the two is inane, and Tess hardly pays attention as she drapes herself over Ket, the slim dress she was forced into now a valuable tool in her arsenal.
Her own brief stint as a braincore allows her a large amount of insight in the case of the boy called Ket. She had to keep thinking or else a super-powered version of boredom would set in. Her braincore kept demanding info, data and things to process. Tess is pretty sure that Ket has been occupying a large portion of this thinking power with potential conversations and things to say.
“Our family has been trying to get the king to ban commoners from carrying swords for years now. The stubborn fool refuses to listen to reason. Spears are good enough for the stinking masses.” A slight bit of agitation now shows on the young noble’s face.
She feels it as Ket swirls qi through his head. The large amount of power rampaging through his braingives off a tangy smell of metal. She can imagine him processing the conversation, working through decision trees and mapping out potential conversation topics.
She hides her devious smirk as she breathes out, her breath tickling his ear. Shifting slightly, she rubs her moderate chest against his arm. She can't help but smile as she senses that Ket’s control of his power falters, the amount of energy radiating from his head fluctuating.
“Ahum, swords, yes… No need for those lowly peasants to hold that noble weapon...” Ket looks away, out into the distance while pretending to cough. A slight blush crawls up his face.
Tess really enjoys herself. Holding such power over another person with a few simple movements feels… exhilarating. She begins to understand why some women dress the way they do.
She uses the lull in the conversation to think about another topic. Ket used to be a baggage carrier. That’s a job that only the young and inept resorted to. Dangerous and low pay, carrying large bags of dropped items while following behind a delver group is not a thankful occupation.
And Ket was one of the worst baggage carriers… Having studied the information accessible through Database quite a lot, Tess has recently understood the difference between IQ and EQ, or smarts and savvy, as she calls them. Ket has plenty of smarts but very little savvy.
Ket would have made a great sneak, Tess suspects, but that would require an introduction into that exclusive circle, something that requires a bare minimum of social skills.
“What types are you looking to acquire?” Their host now has a small sparkle of excitement in his eyes, the first time Tess has seen him display any form of enthusiasm so far. Ket radiates power again, but only for a moment. Thinking up a response must not have taken him a lot of effort.
“Workforce, and my concubine wants a few bed pillows.” Ket waves at Tess, who narrows her eyes imperceptibly.
This was how she thought about the entire race of beastkin not too long ago, she reflects. Daily interactions with Angeta has shattered that view. Not all of it, though. There seems to be some truth in the belief that the entire race is constantly angry.
But Tess would also be angry, were she to be kidnapped and sold off like used clothing, come to think of it. Ferah and all the new disciples further broke this superstition. The gap between human and beastkin seems so small in the face of cultivation, the wonders of Tree’s dimension, and the recent beast rain.
“They do smell, but one can’t argue with taste. Just wash them with plenty of soap. I personally want to find one of the scaled ones. They are rarely seen on the market.” The noble smiles as he stares out the window, towards the east.
Ket is about to reply, most likely already having calculated and formulated a perfect response, when the carriage slows down.
“That dungeon-cursed captain, why are we stopping this time?” Fedin kicks open the door, smacking a servant in the face. Not even glancing at the sprawled woman, he sticks his head out of the opening. “Why have we stopped? Don’t stop for all the-”
“Sir Luzden, we have a horde approaching.” The armoured man with the large plume on his head stops shouting orders long enough to answer the noble. From the front and back carriages, two robe clad figures have emerged surrounded by constantly bowing servant.
The guard captain turns to the front mage and bows deeply. “Honored sir mage, there is a tide incoming.”
Ornate green robes swish about as the wizened man starts majestically gesturing with his arms, the grass in front of him waving back and forth with each movement. The grubby grey covered woman from the back carriage is carrying metal tubes from her wagon while her servants drive metal stakes into the ground. A manic smile is on her face as she mounts her collection of mana cannons on the swivel stakes.
Tess sees Angeta crouching on the ground. Nearly everyone assumes that she is cowering in fear, but Tess realised that she is holding her laughter. Looking at the dramatic nature mage, she kind of understands why. All the arm waving is doing so far is causing the grass to move about a bit.
Valerius, their own escorting mage, is wringing his hands while looking nervous. Then Tess feels a small strand of power, perfectly neutral in feeling, move beside her ear. Teach’s soft voice sounds from it. “The jig is up. This horde was guided here, and I don’t think it’s coming for this noble brat.”
Tess looks up and pales. She doesn’t even need to fake it. Barely visible on the horizon, a large dust cloud is forming. Far away patches of forest block any sight of the source, but not for long. Trees are smashed under enormous feet, claws and paws as mutants the size of a house crash into view, a massive sea of animals following in their thundering footsteps.
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